The Need for New Perspectives
- Dara Culhane (Author)
The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- F. Laurie Barron (Author)
Walking in Indian Moccasins: The Native Policies of Tommy Douglas and the CCF. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neal McLeod
Both Barron’s and Culhane’s books address the relationships between Aboriginal peoples and Canadian society. Culhane discusses the Delgamuukw’ case through perspectives offered by law and anthropology, relying heavily on postmodern perspectives. Barron discusses the developments in the political relationships between Aboriginal people and mainstream Canadian society.
Culhane’s approach stresses her own subjectivity and interpretative location. She talks of her acquisition of Indian status through marriage in 1975 because she wants "to put all my cards on the table." She also appeals to a civic responsibility to "criticize the law" as a citizen of a democratic state. Barron, however, approaches the subject from a detached, "objective" perspective. The narratives of Walking in Indian Moccasins are gleaned primarily from archival sources. While one might discern an underlying sympathy for the Douglas government, all sides are given attention and space within the book. The geographical area of Culhane’s book, British Columbia, has historically been very hostile to the existence to aboriginal rights, whereas Saskatchewan because of population demographics and the events of 1885, has been more willing to listen to the demands of Indian people.
One of the central problems of Culhane’s book is its excessive use of rhetoric, postmodern and otherwise. While claiming that her book is not "dialogue with texts" but a "dispute with texts," she borders on ad hominem against Chief Justice McEachern and expert witness for the crown Dr. Sheila Robinson: "Robinson had never held an academic position, nor has she published her expert opinion reports so that they can be scrutinized by either her colleagues or the public . .. Sheila Robinson has lived her entire life, received her education, and practiced her career among and within the cultural group to which she and her employers belong." While it is important to examine the interpretative location of an individual, Culhane could have been more subtle. Her excessive attacks, on those with whom she does not agree and on the British legal system, take away from her project, which is ambitious and thoughtful.
Despite its probing and exploratory character, The Pleasure of the Crown at times lacks coherence and could have been more erudite in its analysis of the Delgamuukw’ trial. Culhane addresses "the philosophical premises" of the Crown’s case, and throughout the book she attacks the illusion of "objectivity" that the court upheld. Culhane points to the contingency of a legal system which professes to be an "expression of universal reason." Her book is essentially an exercise in hermeneutics as she tries to bring together different interpretative horizons. While she claims that "there are many truths that depend on the speaker’s perspectives and interests," she never does squarely address the epistemo-logical puzzles of her enterprise. For instance, how is understanding possible across cultures? Are the world views of Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en people diametrically opposed to those of the mainstream society, and, if so, how can the sharing of lived political space be possible? Culhane needlessly repeats her critiques of the courts’ dismissal of oral history as found in the adaawak and kungax (both Indigenous vehicles for collective memory), yet ironically she herself offers but a brief and dislocated description of these vehicles of Indigenous consciousness.
In some ways, the scope of The Pleasure of the Crown is greater than Walking in Indian Moccasins. The former is rich with philosophical perspective and grounded in a postmodern-hermeneutical methodology, making it interpretative as well as descriptive. The latter tends to be a very readable account; however, many of the large philosophical questions raised by the interaction between Aboriginal people and Canadian governmental structures are not addressed. While Barron does not address the founda-tional questions of Douglas’s policies, or examine the historical roots of Indian political activism, his book is successful and effective within its limited scope.
The strength of the detached narrative style of Walking in Indian Moccasins is also its limitation. On the whole, the book gives the reader the necessary historical background to the interactions between aboriginal leaders such as John B. Tootoosis and the New Democratic government of Tommy Douglas. In the opening section of the book, Barron situates his analysis within the historical context of World War II and the post-war era. A central theme unifying Barron’s analysis is that the policies of Douglas had more in common with the New Deal than the termination policy in the United States. Barron argues that the government of Douglas was committed to achieving social justice, and was genuinely interested in the concerns of Aboriginal people. In his assessment of this political relationship, Barron examines the liquor and vote ques lions, as well as llie seminal formation of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians in 1946 in Saskatoon.
His conclusion on the policies of the Douglas government arises from his meticulous work with archival materials. However, despite his note that is that "informants provided a richness unavailable in archival sources," the voice of Aboriginal people and oral history is marginal. The story of the interaction between the Douglas government and the Aboriginal people of Saskatchewan is told from the perspective of the dominant society. Indeed, there is a subtle assumption throughout the book that historical agency comes from the dominant society and not from aboriginal people: "A central premise of CCF policy was the need to organize the Indians of the province into a single association through which Indian grievances and concerns could be voiced." Undoubtedly, it was important that there was one organization to facilitate the creation of a coherent policy regarding aboriginal people. While Barron is careful not to exaggerate the role of white people in the political movements, his failure to discuss the residential school system and his brief mention of the history of Indian political struggle point to the limitations of his analysis.
Both books make important contributions to the analysis of the place of Aboriginal people within a Canadian framework and undoubtedly will aid other scholars who are examining Aboriginal political realities in Canada. However, both books suffer from a lack of aboriginal perspective. While Culhane purports throughout her book to be in a superior interpretative position than others, she, like MacEachern and Robinson, fails to penetrate First Nations perspectives and world views. While decrying MacEachern and Robinson’s dismissal of oral history in the Delgamuukw’ case, the reality is that Culhane places little importance on the adaawak and kungax in her analysis. Thus, while criticizing the ethnocentricism of others, her account remains on the perimeter of Aboriginal world views and dwells instead in the world of the British legal system and of contemporary European postmodern thought. Her discussions of the Gitksan and Wet’sutwet’en politico-religious systems are very brief, especially given the length of the book. While she offers succinct assumptions of some of the philosophical critiques of the Crown’s case, she remains within the confines of European thought, and indeed one could say that her excessive use of postmodern rhetoric throughout the book might merely be a new guise for colonialism and domination, but in friendlier clothes.
Both books address central issues which aboriginal people face today. However, as I read the books I was conscious of an absence of aboriginal voices and perspectives. While both scholars make insightful remarks, and create scholarship upon which others can build, there are noticeable holes in their narratives. As I read Barron’s book, I did not hear the stories my father told me of the political struggles of my great-grandfather Abel McLeod who was a chief of the James Smith reserve and who went with John B. Tootoosis in 1932 to argue for Indian rights, motivated by the problem of the residential schools, and by a belief in the sacredness of the Treaties, against the backdrop of political resistance since 1885.1 heard John B. Tootoosis speak; I heard his passion and was raised on the stories of his achievements. I did not hear that passion in Barron’s book. Nor did I encounter in Culhane’s analysis an aboriginal perspective on politics, or on the importance of clans and feasts. Both books are helpful, and offer much to think about. I have been enriched by reading both of them. However, I think that there is still much need to discuss the narratives of contemporary aboriginal people and to hear perspectives from the inside of aboriginal cultures, writ ten by aboriginal people whose lives are guided by the stories emerging from our lived realities. By putting such accounts side by side with Culhane’s and Barron’s, all will be enriched and benefit if they have an open mind.
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MLA: McLeod, Neal. The Need for New Perspectives. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 143 - 146)
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